FINLAY, JAMES KENT
FINLAY, JAMES KENT (1938–2015). James Kent Finlay (known as Kent), singer, songwriter, music hall owner, teacher, and mentor, was born in Brady, Texas, on February 9, 1938, to James Finlay, Jr., and Grace Zelma (Short) Finlay. He grew up on a cotton farm in Fife in McCulloch County in Cenral Texas and began singing as a child in the Church of Christ and at community gatherings in the Lohn/Fife communities. His cousin taught him to play piano when he was five, and Finlay bought his first guitar, a Kay acoustic, while on a Future Farmers of America (FFA) field trip to San Angelo. He started a band in high school and entered the regional FFA Talent Show and made it all the way to the state competition before falling to a band called the Wink Westerners (led by Roy Orbison).
Kent Finlay pursued a teaching degree and in 1957 was a freshman at San Angelo College (now Angelo State University). He subsequently attended Southwest Texas State College (now Texas State University) in San Marcos, where he earned a bachelor of arts degree in English and master of arts degree in education. After a brief career in a traditional classroom, he turned his talents to working with aspiring Texas singers and songwriters. His classroom became an old grocery warehouse—the Cheatham Street Warehouse—on the east side of the tracks in San Marcos, Texas.
In the early 1970s Finlay spent many nights sitting under the oak tree or around the pot belly stove at the old store in Luckenbach, where he played his own songs for his friend and mentor Hondo Crouch. Crouch inspired Finlay to open his own venue as a gathering place for songwriters and musicians. He credited Hondo Crouch for much of the spirit of his new venture when he opened Cheatham Street Warehouse, the legendary honky-tonk on the railroad tracks in San Marcos in 1974, and began featuring progressive country bands, Texas music legends, and songwriters. He helped launch the careers of countless acts from George Strait and Stevie Ray Vaughan to Randy Rogers (the venue’s owner in 2018). Finlay’s weekly “Songwriters’ Circle” became renowned as a training ground for many other songwriters who cultivated successful music careers, including Todd Snider, Hal Ketchum, Terri Hendrix, Bruce Robison, and James McMurtry. Legendary Texas songwriter Ray Wylie Hubbard said, “Kent Finlay’s a guru, a Yoda…. For him, it’s not about what he can get. It’s about what he can give, what he can contribute to the music.”
Finlay had limited commercial success with his own songs, but his support, encouragement, and mentorship for more successful artists has been credited by many. Strait, auditioned to be the singer for the Ace in the Hole Band at Cheatham Street in 1975 and played his first hundred shows there. For nearly forty years, Kent Finlay and George Strait called one another friends—Finlay was proud of the fact that he took the “King of Country Music” to Nashville for the very first time in 1977. Strait, songwriter Darrell Staedtler, and Finlay made the long drive from Texas to Nashville in hopes of landing a major record deal. "The truth of the matter is that every major label passed on George Strait," Finlay told the (Nashville) Tennessean in 2014. "That van had two seats and an Army cot in the back. We took turns driving and riding and sleeping in the cot."
Eventually, Nashville executives discovered what Texas fans knew. Strait played weekly at Cheatham Street for almost seven years. “I knew he would be a star,” Finlay said, “probably before he did." Country music’s most successful male artist thanked Finlay and his then-wife Diana for "giving me and the guys a place to perform when no one else would."
Finlay also led his own dancehall band, the High Cotton Express, for more than a decade in the 1970s and early 1980s, which later transformed into a family band, featuring his daughter Jenni on fiddle and his son Sterling on bass. This incarnation kept him on stages across Texas through the late 1990s.
In 1977 he returned to traditional teaching, when, with the encouragement and support of history professor William Pool, Finlay was hired to teach a popular course in country music history in the history department at Southwest Texas State University. He continued to teach the course into the 1980s and again in the 2000s. Among his first students were George Strait and other members of the Ace in the Hole Band. Finlay was also instrumental in the development of the Center for Texas Music History at the university.
In 1988 Finlay sold his Cheatham Street business but bought back the club in 1999. In 2005 he established the Cheatham Street Music Foundation, a non-profit music development foundation "dedicated to developing, promoting, preserving and perpetuating Texas music," as well as an independent label, Cheatham Street Records.
Kent Finlay received several prestigious awards in his later life, including the 2007 Coach Darrell K. Royal Texas Heritage Songwriters' Patron Award from the Texas Heritage Songwriters Association; the Lone Star Award from Lone Star Music in 2014; the 2014 San Marcos Tourism Lifetime Achievement Award; and posthumous induction into the Texas Music Legends Hall of Fame in 2016.
In 1978 he married Diana Becker; they divorced by 2002. They had three children—Jenni, Sterling, and HalleyAnna. Growing up in a legendary music hall, Finlay’s three children became professionals in the music business. Jenni Finlay established a successful music promotions, production, and marketing agency; Sterling Finlay established a career as a bass player, working with bands and on recording sessions throughout Texas; and HalleyAnna became a singer-songwriter. Each credited their father’s influence in their career choices. His former wife Diana, a writer, specialized in Texas music and culture.
James Kent Finlay died at the age of seventy-seven from heart failure, a complication from a battle with multiple myeloma, on Texas Independence Day—March 2, 2015. He was surrounded by family, friends, and a host of songwriters at his Get Along Ranch on the San Marcos River in Martindale, Texas. His ashes are buried in the Fife Cemetery in McCulloch County, Texas. On the day Finlay died, George Strait commented, “Country music—and just music in general really—lost a great friend today. His legend will live forever in Texas, though. We'll never forget our friend, Kent Finlay." His memorial service was held in Texas State University’s Evans Auditorium, one of the largest indoor venues in San Marcos at the time, to accommodate the friends who came to celebrate his life.
In 2016, Eight 30 Records produced a tribute album of Kent’s songs entitled Dreamer: A Tribute to Kent Finlay, featuring a host of successful Texas songwriters paying homage to the “Godfather of Texas Songwriters.” Finlay and his Cheatham Street Warehouse served as one of the anchors of the Country Music Hall of Fame’s exhibit Outlaws & Armadillos: Country’s Roaring ‘70s in Nashville (showing from 2018 to 2021).
Gregg Andrews, "'It's the Music': Kent Finlay's Cheatham Street Warehouse in San Marcos, Texas," The Journal of Texas Music History 5 (Spring 2005). Jayme Blaschke, “Texas State alumni donor and music sage Kent Finlay dies,” Texas State University News Service (http://www.txstate.edu/news/news_releases/news_archive/2015/March-2015/KentFinlay030315.html), accessed August 22, 2018. Cheatham Street Warehouse (http://www.cheathamstreet.com), accessed August 21, 2018. Peter Cooper, “George Strait’s career has endured like no other,” The Tennessean, March 21, 2014 (https://www.tennessean.com/story/entertainment/music/peter-cooper/2014/03/20/george-straits-career-endured-like/6676485/ ), accessed August 21, 2018. Jenni Finlay and Brian T. Atkinson, Kent Finlay, Dreamer (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2016). Diana Finlay Hendricks, Kent Finlay promotional press kit, 1984 (Finlay Family Archives). Richard Skanse, “Songs and Stories of San Marcos: Kent Finlay,” Lone Star Music Magazine 6 (March/April 2013). Christian Wallace, “Exclusive Premier: Kent Finlay’s Last Song,” Texas Monthly (https://www.texasmonthly.com/the-culture/kent-finlays-last-song/), accessed August 21, 2018.
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